UK's first milk bank celebrates 80th anniversary

Queen Charlotte’s & Chelsea Hospital’s (QCCH) milk bank is celebrating 80 years of providing breast milk to preterm and unwell babies.

The milk bank is the oldest continuously operating service in the world, providing donor milk to around 500 extremely premature and sick babies each year. It supports both of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust’s neonatal units as well as several other hospital trusts in London. 

The milk bank was officially opened in March 1939; four years after breast milk from new mothers at QCCH was transported by aeroplane twice a day, to help feed quadruplets born seven week premature in St Neots, Cambridgeshire. This led to a permanent milk bank being established at QCCH which continued to operate throughout the War and at times when other services were closing, including the 1980's when it was found that HIV could be transmitted via breast milk.

Today, the milk bank provides around 400 litres of milk a year. The milk is donated by mothers whose babies are under one. It is collected from their homes by volunteer couriers on motorbikes and brought to QCCH where it is screened and pasteurised. There are usually around 30 donors supporting the milk bank at any one time.

“Mothers of very premature babies often find that their milk does not come in at the same time as their child is born. For babies born at 31 weeks or younger, breast milk is much easier to digest than formula, making it vital for their development,” said Sarah McGovern milk bank co-ordinator.

“To have reached our 80th birthday is an incredible achievement and we are extremely grateful to all of our donor mothers and volunteers without whom we could not provide this valuable service.” 

Andrea, has an eight month old baby and has been donating milk for nearly five months: “I became a donor when by chance I heard a talk by a mother who had lost one of her premature twins to necrotising enterocolitis, which is a disease that can be prevented (to some degree) by feeding human milk. 

“I hope that my milk can give a sick baby a better chance and also that it would provide some comfort to mothers, in what must be a very stressful situation, to know that complete strangers care about them and their babies.

"I wish more people, and potential donors, were aware of the amazing work that milk banks do.”

Concetta’s baby has been receiving donor milk from the first hours of life and for the last month, she said: “Donor milk has given our baby a great start in life supporting her development and growth. We feel so grateful to have had this opportunity for our baby. As a mother I feel donor milk has saved our lives, making it easy for me to accept I was not able to provide breast milk to my baby which is crucial for the first steps in the life of a premature newborn."